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Analysis: Liberia’s 2017’s First Presidential Debate

The Most Prominent Candidates in Liberia’s October 2017 Presidential Election

President Ellen Johnson Sirelaf

The West African nation of Liberia is scheduled to hold presidential and legislative elections on October 10, 2017. The winner of the Presidential poll will replace outgoing president Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who has led the country from 2006 to 2017.

There are 22 presidential candidates, but the most serious, popular and accomplished candidates include current Vice President Joseph N. Boakai of the Unity Party (UP), Charles W. Brumskine of the Liberty Party (LP), Alexander B. Cummings of the Alternative National Congress (ANC), Dr. Joseph Mills Jones of the Movement for Economic Empowerment, Senator George M. Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), and Benoni Urey of the All Liberian Party (ALP).

Six presidential candidates were invited to a debate to outline their governance plans to the Liberian people. Those invited included Mr. Benoni Urey, Standard Bearer of the All Liberian Party, Mr. Alexander Cummings, Standard Bearer of the Alternative National Congress, and Dr J. Mills Jones, Standard Bearer of the Movement for Economic Empowerment. Vice President Joseph N. Boakai, Standard Bearer of the Unity Party, Cllr. Charles W. Brumskine, Standard Bearer of the Liberty Party, and Sen. George M. Weah, Standard Bearer of the Coalition for Democratic Change.

Senator George Weah and Dr. Joseph Mills Jones did not attend. No reasons were given for their abrupt failure to attend.

During the debate, each presidential aspirant onstage were asked to outline their plans in six key areas and how they will fund whatever their plans are. The six key areas were:  the economy; security and rule of law; peace and reconciliation; anti-corruption policy; agriculture; and youth empowerment.

The debate was significant because it allowed the citizens and the international community to gauge the thinking and preparedness of those who want to succeed President Sirleaf in January 2018.

For Dr. Mills-Jones, Liberians are still finding reasons why he did not attend the debate. For Weah, many Liberians say he is habitual in avoiding intellectual exercise. As such, Liberians do not know his governance philosophy and his true positions on issues. Thus, making him a risky bet for the Office of President, according to some people including international policy makers.  Weah’s decision to escape the debate was not the most  issue of concern; what caught the attention of Liberians and people around the world was the ill-thought out Facebook’s message posted by the country’s education minister.  Few hours to the debate, the so-called education chief posted the following message on Facebook:

“What’s the purpose of political debates in Liberia, and who are the debates for?”

When an education minister does not know the purpose of a political debate regarding national governance and leadership, how can he or she lead a country into investment in science, technology, engineering and math as well as the arts?  No wonder Liberia’s educational system has remained a “mess” under President Sirleaf’s administration after 12 years.

The four presidential candidates who participated in the debate, including Joseph N. Boakai of the Unity Party (UP), Charles W. Brumskine of the Liberty Party (LP), Alexander B. Cummings of the Alternative National Congress (ANC) and Benoni Urey of the All Liberian Party (ALP), spoke of their governance plans for Liberia.

The debate, which was watched by Liberians at home and abroad, expatriates living and working in the country as well as international policy makers and others with interest in Liberia, is said to be the most organized and most civil political event between rival political candidates in the history of Liberia.

“Overall, this was a significant difference in Liberian politics and a big day for Liberians of all walks of life to celebrate,” said Jones Nhinson Williams, a Liberian and western trained public policy, labor market information, and workforce development professional based in the United States.

“Everyone won and Liberia is the biggest winner. To see Liberian politicians on stage together talking respectfully about ideas and advancing solutions to addressing the country’s problems and needs is a major milestone,” he said.

Liberia has had a prolonged civil war that started in 1989 and ended in 2003 with the establishment of an interim government and the subsequent arrest of warlord Charles Taylor who is serving jail time in the UK for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  It is important to note that Taylor’s wife, Senator Jewel Howard-Taylor, is running as the vice presidential candidate to Senator George Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), and credible and reliable international sources say he (Taylor) is providing financial support to his wife’s candidacy through proxies with whom he exploited and ran Liberia like a cartel.

In 2005, the country had its first real post-conflict, free and fair democratically elected presidential election. That process ushered in President Sirleaf with a mandate to restore public confidence, end injustices and political abuse, halt and prevent corruption and social divisions, revamp the economy and promote economic and social development.

Liberians supported president Sirleaf and her government by embracing and supporting social cohesion and maintaining peace across the nation, a reason for which President Sirelaf won a Nobel Peace Prize some two years ago.  President Sirleaf may be credited for the sustained peace in the country, but the real credit belongs to Liberians.

With relative peace, people expect prosperity but there are no jobs, no better health services, the educational system is a mess, and electricity remains inadequate.  Above all, corruption is widespread and people who corrupt the most frequently go with impunity while the country lacks the capacity to provide basic needs.

For these reasons many Liberians are stranded in Europe, Canada and the United States illegally, especially after the Temporary Protective Status and the Deferred Deportation Status repeatedly expired with the most recent one occurring in May 2017.  Currently, thousands of Liberians are undocumented or illegal in the United States because of 12 years of governance failure in their country.  The next Liberian president therefore has to be innovative and prepared to lead the country with focus on job creation, the rule of law, national reconciliation, infrastructural and private sector development.

This would require a leader who understands the evolving dynamics of the global economy and the role of labor in sustainable development, in ensuring security, private sector growth, and workforce development strategies that will put Liberia at the center of the knowledge-based economy emerging in West Africa.

Apart from maintaining peace, Liberia has multiple problems which have no real relationship to the impact of the war. These problems include organized, official and endemic corruption, flagrant nepotism, the abuse of power, political witch-hunt, money laundering and varied economic crimes, unimaginable unemployment, deplorable healthcare , messy educational systems, poor infrastructures, and an explicit disunity that is largely propagated by tribal and religious stooges.  Stabilizing and redeveloping Liberia after the war should have taken, at least, a decade or less if corruption and greed were not interfering factors, and if nepotism and favoritism were not at the center of the current governance practices in the country.

In addition, the investment climate in the country is fragile due to political interference and a bureaucratic failures that emboldened senior government officials and their lieutenants to demand a 20% cut from investors and local Liberian business people before approving any transaction, including tariffs on imports and exports.

Furthermore, many global analysts say the ongoing Liberian administration is seemingly leaving the country in mountain debts as it continues to seek artificial and secret loans from international financial and development institutions with the pretense of undertaking specific development projects that have no timeline and end dates.

The taxes collected nationwide, especially from tariff imposed on imported and exported goods, benefit the privileged few and the well-connected who drive around in US$50,000 vehicles on unpaved and dusty roads in a nation where unemployment is estimated at 85% and an average family lives on less than a US$1.50 a day, according to the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme, and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s Country Factsheet.

Several Liberians, unlike other West Africans, end up losing their goods and products at the Freeport of Monrovia due to exorbitant tariffs levied by the Liberia Revenue Authority, an agency which has a Commissioner-General that earns over US$12,000 in salaries and other immunities while the government carelessly squeezes poor and struggling petit traders and others with heavy tax levies.

The next Liberian president has a lot of work to do. From restructuring and empowering the security structures and institutions,  confronting and/or being prepared for potential threats from nearby jihadist terrorist groups operating in the West African region to restoring economic stability, fostering national reconstruction, empowering the private sector, and creating jobs.

“Creating thousands of jobs post-Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s corrupt and inept administration would not be that difficult if the next president restructures and redefines the mandate of the country’s ministry of labor,” said Jones Nhinson Williams.   “Liberia needs a robust labor ministry that should have under its jurisdiction innovation and entrepreneurship, industry and occupational certifications, workforce development, employment services, workers’ protection services, and a realistic labor market information and statistics unit to monitor and direct job creation policies.”  To succeed, he continued, “the next president must make the labor ministry and the employment of Liberians a central aspect of his or her governance philosophy because labor is the engine of economic growth, social and community development in all prosperous nations,” he said.

“Presently, Liberia is consumed by chaos and disunity and everyone wants to be a lawmaker or a politician because there are no jobs in the private sector,” he continued.  He added, “we can change that as a nation if we put the right policies and the right people in the right places irrespective of tribal or political affiliations.”

The four main candidates who took part in the debate each outlined their plan for a better Liberia. This is a good start and Liberians should give these four respected Liberians a serious look. In any democracy, voters should never vote for any candidate who fears debates, or in submitting his or her ideas for scrutiny and approval prior to assuming office.  Voters should vote for people with patriotism for country, competence, educational achievement, experience and a good governance’s vision.

This is why Vice President Joseph N. Boakai of the Unity Party (UP), Charles W. Brumskine of the Liberty Party (LP), Alexander B. Cummings of the Alternative National Congress (ANC) and Benoni Urey of the All Liberian Party (ALP) must be considered very seriously by Liberians because of the great job they have done in the debate held on August 17, 2017.   Senator Weah and Dr. Mills-Jones have a second chance and they must take advantage of it to tell the Liberian people why each of them should be the next president of Liberia.  After all, both are decent Liberians, too.

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